bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
The last indignity for these sufferers is to be disbelieved
by Julian Borger

The last indignity for these sufferers is to be disbelieved

Those who are digging up Kosovo's corpses know what the truth is


Julian Borger

Fate has saved up one last indignity for the people of Kosovo. They lost relatives in last year's bloodletting, they saw loved ones executed before their eyes, and they were driven from their homes. Now - just as they are struggling to rebuild their lives - they are being called liars and accused of faking their grief for political gain.

The Kosovo backlash is in full swing. The criticism of last year's Nato campaign against the Serbs – quite properly - opened a debate over ‘humanitarian intervention’ and whether such intervention should involve dropping cluster bombs from high altitude.

But the backlash has gone further, casting doubt on the scale and nature of Serb atrocities and calling into question eyewitness accounts of the killing. The allegations are serious - hinting at a conspiracy between Nato, the press, the humanitarian agencies and the refugees themselves - yet they are based on no more than partial and misconstrued evidence.

The starting point for the wave of revisionism has been the exhumations carried out by the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. As of mid-July, tribunal investigators confirmed they had recovered the remains of 2,808 bodies, believed to be victims of the Serb ethnic cleansing campaign. That routine announcement triggered reports that the total death toll had been less than 3,000 and that Nato (with the aid of its co-conspirators) had deliberately inflated the casualty figures, with estimates of 10,000 dead and more, to justify its intervention.

No one is more bemused by these claims than their supposed source - the Hague tribunal itself. Paul Risley, the chief prosecutor's spokesman, says he is unsure how his tally of exhumations to date came to be portrayed as a final toll.

The search for bodies is continuing. Seven forensic teams are currently probing Kosovo's tortured earth, and aim to investigate another 150 reported grave sites before winter sets in. That will leave 200 sites to go. And more are being reported all the time.

In October, the tribunal will make a decision as to whether to continue its forensic work. If the digging is called off, it will be because the prosecutors believe they have enough evidence to mount a war crimes case against the Serb leadership in Belgrade. It will not be because there are no more bodies to find.

According to Risley, there is a rule of thumb among those whose job it is to literally pick up the pieces after such bloody conflicts. You seldom find more than half the bodies. Kosovo is unlikely to be an exception. Returning refugees found the bodies of their friends and relatives lying in their houses or gardens, in roadside ditches, or scattered through the forests and mountains. The remains were quickly buried in individual graves, prayers spoken and word was passed about who had been found. There was no reason to seek out the Red Cross to add their names to the list of the missing. Their fate was known.

In nearby Bosnia, five years after the war, war crimes investigators are still stumbling across more graves, still finding bones on hillsides. The search will take years in Kosovo as well, and there is reason to believe that even fewer of the bodies will be found. If there was one lesson President Miloševic took from Bosnia, it was to make more of an effort to hide the evidence.

Several mass graves in Kosovo were systematically emptied last summer by the retreating Serb troops. In the village of Izbica, there was well-documented evidence, including videotape and satellite photographs, of the killing and burial of nearly 150 Kosovans in an open pasture. By the time Nato arrived, the field was a mass of churned earth scarred by the caterpillar tracks of heavy diggers. The same happened in Pušto Selo, near Orahovac, and the hamlet of Rezalla, north of Prishtina. There is strong evidence that some of the bodies were incinerated in factories, or in some cases burnt on bonfires at the murder scene.

Sure enough, some wild figures did fly about for a few days. The US defence secretary, William Cohen, said in May that 100,000 military-aged men were missing and ‘may have been murdered’. That was clearly an exaggeration, but not much of a conspiracy. The 100,000 figure never gained wide circulation and the estimate most often quoted by Nato officials was 10,000 dead, a guess shared by many humanitarian workers on the borders at the time. Today, it still looks like a reasonable assessment.

In the absence of complete forensic evidence, the only feasible scientific way of gauging the extent of the bloodshed is to take sample surveys of the population and extrapolate. One such epidemiological survey was published in the Lancet in July, estimating that 12,000 people had been killed by ‘war-related trauma’ in Kosovo from February 1998 to June 1999.

On one issue, human rights organisations are agreed. The testimony provided by the traumatised refugees as they arrived at the Macedonian, Albanian and Montenegrin borders last year was eventually borne out by the facts. There is no evidence of any concerted effort to deceive or exaggerate. The idea that these exhausted terrified people had time to concoct coherent, corroborated testimony is as absurd as it is offensive.

Joanne Mariner, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who trudged across Kosovo for months checking and rechecking reports of atrocities, said: ‘The refugees never cited numbers. They talked about whom they had seen killed. All the reports I investigated based on what I was told - they all turned out to be true. I went to the villages and checked them out.’

We have been here before. There has been a campaign to deny the existence of death camps in Bosnia. There was talk that the death toll from the Srebrenica massacre had been inflated. Rumours were spread that the Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo were shelling themselves. None of these claims, of course, turned out to be true.

The West stopped the killing in Bosnia three years too late, after 100,000 or more victims were already dead. In Kosovo, an attempt was made to learn from the past, and to act sooner rather than later. It is a tough decision to take, but one that could not and should not be dodged. Or should we watch from afar as the victims wail with grief on our television screens, and then a year or so later - when the dead have long been buried and memories have blurred - decide that maybe all those screaming foreigners were just trying to fool us after all?

This article appeared in The Guardian (London), on 25 August 2000



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